Lack of computer access linked to poorer mental health in young people during COVID-19 pandemic

Lack of computer access linked to poorer mental health in young people during COVID-19 pandemic

Cambridge researchers have highlighted how lack of access to a computer was linked to poorer mental health among young people and adolescents during COVID-19 lockdowns.

The team found that the end of 2020 was the time when young people faced the most difficulties and that the mental health of those young people without access to a computer tended to deteriorate to a greater extent than that of their peers who did have access.

The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant effect on young people’s mental health, with evidence of rising levels of anxiety, depression, and psychological distress. Adolescence is a period when people are particularly vulnerable to developing mental health disorders, which can have long-lasting consequences into adulthood. In the UK, the mental health of children and adolescents was already deteriorating before the pandemic, but the proportion of people in this age group likely to be experiencing a mental health disorder increased from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020.

The pandemic led to the closure of schools and an increase in online schooling, the impacts of which were not felt equally. Those adolescents without access to a computer faced the greatest disruption: in one study 30% of school students from middle-class homes reported taking part in live or recorded school lessons daily, while only 16% of students from working-class homes reported doing so.

In addition to school closures, lockdown often meant that young people could not meet their friends in person. During these periods, online and digital forms of interaction with peers, such as through video games and social media, are likely to have helped reduce the impact of these social disruptions.

Tom Metherell, who at the time of the study was an undergraduate student at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge, said: “Access to computers meant that many young people were still able to ‘attend’ school virtually, carry on with their education to an extent and keep up with friends. But anyone who didn’t have access to a computer would have been at a significant disadvantage, which would only risk increasing their sense of isolation.”

To examine in detail the impact of digital exclusion on the mental health of young people, Metherell and colleagues examined data from 1,387 10-15-year-olds collected as part of Understanding Society, a large UK-wide longitudinal survey. They focused on access to computers rather than smartphones, as schoolwork is largely possible only on a computer while at this age most social interactions occur in person at school.

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